Desperate Daze

If they’re even remotely human, the Kiwis will surely be reeling tonight. Alinghi took their second straight come-from-behind win to go 4-2 up, just one race short of a successful defence. In the Louis Vuitton semis and finals, passes were about as common as rocking horse pooh, and now we can barely get through a race without one, or even a handful.

This sixth race was no less extraordinary than any of those that went before it. The balance of power shifting so fast and so unpredictably, it was like watching Formula 1 cars trying to race on gravel roads.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to neatly sum it all up – but this race, this series, will not be put into boxes. Neither team can produce a significant, consistent edge. The Kiwis aren’t a flawless racing machine, and Alinghi aren’t a rocket-ship. But while I'd still rather be in SUI100 if you gave me a choice, and it’s the Kiwis mental strength and tight racing technique that has kept them in the game, it’s been the errors that have made this such an absorbing contest.

Alinghi clean the Kiwis out on the way to the layline. The Kiwis clean Alinghi out on the way to the layline. Barker wins one start, Baird wins the next. Alinghi’s boat handling looks a bit rough, the Kiwis rip a chute…

You see my problem.

This America’s Cup doesn’t belong in a world with a three minute attention span, that prefers one sentence of ‘spin’ to political policy, the elevator pitch rather than the script. In this world, there is only one way to tell this story…

Alinghi have won four and ETNZ have won two.

And I don’t blame you if you leave it there. But if you’ll stay with me for a few minutes, I have a tale that will be retold as long as there are yachts and yacht races…

It was Ed Baird’s moment to step up to the call of history. After taking a hiding at the hands of Dean Barker yesterday, fate had handed him the starboard tack advantage in light air. He got ETNZ into the dial up, and he held Barker there, pinned into the left-hand side of the box, both boats gently luffing on starboard tack as they drifted towards the pin. The clock ticked down, and the screw ratcheted onto Barker’s shoulders. Trapped. At 3-2 down in the America’s Cup. Can you imagine the suffocating pressure? This is the kind of moment that has £25 million strikers putting the ball over the bar in World Cup penalty shoot-outs.

But at one minute 40 seconds, a chink opened and Barker leapt on it, gybing away, turning back towards the committee boat. Alinghi tacked round, both boats on port, heading for the committee boat, Alinghi from above the line, the Kiwis below it. The next bit is open to interpretation – but here’s how I saw it…

At the press conference afterwards, Dean Barker said the Kiwis wanted the left, while Brad Butterworth told us that Alinghi wanted the right. So Dean Barker’s problem was to get far enough to the right of the start box to be able to gybe and come out still laying the pin on starboard, and without so much ‘time to burn’ that Alinghi could gybe on their tail and force them either over the line or to tack away to the right.

And so it came to pass that Alinghi found the Kiwis reaching up from under them, crossing their bow with Barker going from a safe leeward/ahead position, to a very unsafe windward/ahead position. It was an invitation to Ed Baird to turn the wheel down sharply and bear away, and all of a sudden, the Kiwis found themselves struggling to get their gybe in across Alinghi’s bow.

Barker went for it, as he has in the past (against the Spanish, I think, when he did cop a penalty…) and this time he got away with it. But it looked as dodgy as a forty five cent piece, and Brad Butterworth clearly wasn’t happy on the water. If Alinghi had lost, I suspect he’d have been fuming at the press conference. As it was, he just said, ‘We all get things wrong - some of them more obvious than others. But they’ve got a tough job. They are doing their best.’

But when the shouting was done and the flags flown, we had both boats with the side they wanted, on starboard and heading back to the line. The Kiwis worked hard to close the gauge to Alinghi to get tight to leeward in the final approach. But it was an even start, and it looked like we’d have another drag race to the layline – this one a mirror image of yesterday, on starboard not port, and with the Kiwis to leeward not windward. Just like race four then, the observant amongst you will be saying…

So we know how tight these are, how little it takes to push it one way or the other when the boats are so closely matched. Adam Beashel said afterwards that their expectation afterwards was for a right shift off the line, and they’d been hoping to force Alinghi away during that, so the Swiss had to sail the header. That part didn’t work out – although the Kiwis worked really hard at scalloping up to Alinghi and closing the leverage down.

But the ETNZ weather team had told them to expect a left hand shift next. It arrived when they were about two thirds of the way out to the layline – the Kiwis hit the hyperspace button, put it into high mode and the separation came tumbling down. Alinghi held their lane to within about two minutes of the layline – close but no cigar. Brad Butterworth called for the tack, and about a minute later the Kiwis followed.

At this point, the Swiss were still in pretty good shape, all they needed was one decent right hand shift to take back to the Kiwis, and they could bounce them out past the layline. There were a couple of times when, on Live Sailing, it looked like the Swiss might have enough as the Kiwis hit a soft spot. But it didn’t look like that from Alinghi, and as they closed on the mark the Kiwis hit better pressure and a left hand shift and started to lift off the Swiss. Butterworth finally had to tack to stem the bleeding on the gain line, and the Kiwis crossed two lengths in front, held the left, saved themselves a tack and were 14 seconds in front at the mark.

But it was going to be a tough run to hold a lead. Initially, Terry Hutchinson went for the tight cover, and Alinghi made a little gain. And when Alinghi next gybed away to the left, Hutchinson took his cojones in both hands, backed what Adam Beashel and Ray Davies were telling him, and carried on… For a couple of minutes it looked like the Kiwis had got it wrong, then the Swiss hit a light patch and had to gybe, and at the next cross the Kiwis were further ahead. And they were in a position where they could take whichever side of the gate and the beat that they wanted. Their choice would settle the race, could settle the Cup. The left or the right… the left or the right… whichever they took, the Swiss would take the other one.

Dean Barker said afterwards that they thought the beat was pretty even, and they reckoned the advantages of the easier drop going to the left hand mark would outweigh any bias to the right hand gate mark. Maybe. Whatever, the Swiss rounded 11 seconds behind, which was a good comeback from where they had been two thirds of the way down the run. And those extra metres were about to be crucial. The Swiss headed out to the right on port, and the Kiwis tacked to cover them.

We had another drag race, with the gainline shifting back and forth with every burp and bubble in the breeze. It was all about whether Alinghi could find the moment to tack and go across to them. And it was getting softer, the wind slipping down to eight knots – we’d already seen two passes in these conditions with leebow tacks that wouldn’t stick. First the advantage went to the Swiss and the Kiwi lead almost evaporated. Then the Kiwis got their two or three length advantage back… But not for long, the pendulum reached the top of its swing and started to slide towards Alinghi…

Butterworth said afterwards they got their nose into a little more breeze first. ‘The angles of those boats are quite big in that 7-8 knot breeze, if you get 7.5 knots you might be 5 degrees higher than the other guy. It’s huge. If you have just a little bit more pressure in that wind range it makes a huge difference and that is what happened.’ Or as Dean Barker put it, ‘A little bit of pressure and a little bit of shift goes a long way in those conditions.’

Finally, Butterworth reckoned it looked as good as it was going to get and Alinghi tacked. To me, it didn’t look like the Kiwis could cross even if they wanted to - they tacked leebow. Butterworth came back at them again, and Terry Hutchinson accepted the invite. Another cross. Same result. But Alinghi were hitting better breeze on the right, and Butterworth went back at them really short the third time. With the breeze coming in from Alinghi’s side, the Kiwis had to get over to them. But as the Kiwis tacked it was clear that Alinghi were well bow forward. And in less time than it’s taken for me to type this, the Swiss were past. ETNZ couldn’t get close enough to make the leebow stick, worse, they had to tack downspeed, and Alinghi were able to hold their lane on starboard all the way to the top mark.

That doesn’t tell you anything about how close the Kiwis got on the last leg. They were ‘inside’ gybing (pulling the clew around aft of the luff of the sail), whereas the Swiss were still ‘outside’ gybing (letting the clew float round ahead of the luff). Adam Beashel, ETNZ windspotter was asked about it afterwards, ‘I think there is a little difference in the boat’s cross-overs – we have developed it this way in the last three years of our sailing, and are happy going inside with our gybes in that wind range. Hopefully we will stay inside a little bit higher than what we expected today, and it is what is showing with our slightly better gybes. If conditions get softer later on it could get more interesting.’

Slicker gybes and a lane of wind got the Kiwis to within a length of the Swiss. But closing the gap and getting around are two different things. The Kiwis took one final gybe out to the layline to try and get some separation; hit a hole in the breeze and that was it. Game over, match point. The final delta was 28 seconds.

Brad Butterworth was asked how much of their passing move was luck, ‘I think there is always an element of luck. Unless you have a crystal ball which tells you or you can see the wind buoys you just don’t know. The gate kind of leaves you with what you’ve got - we were going to go opposite to them, so were happy to go round that left mark looking down. We came round with quite a left breeze – and predominantly the right seems to win out. It’s been a tough environment to sail the races, and you have seen big lead changes that are all wind orientated - from the shifts and pressure.’

Dean Barker was putting as brave a face on it as he could, ‘We are as positive as we can be. It’s hard losing races, we are 3 from 6 round the top mark, and we are 2-4 down so they have done a better job at converting their percentages. I think while there is a chance we are still a very dangerous team. I have complete confidence in the guys and our entire team and I do firmly believe we can get ourselves back into it. It’s a big ask as they are a very strong team, while there is a chance we will be right there. We will sail exactly the same as we have. We are not sailing badly, it is just that the key moment hasn’t gone our way – we still have 100% belief we can come back and have a good race tomorrow.’

I don't think there's a man, woman, child or dog that's watched this series that wouldn't agree with him.

America's Cup Live Race Commentary at:

Mark Chisnell ©